Many new writers are troubled by the question ‘What shall I write about?’ Often the answer given to them is... ‘Write about what you know.’ Baldly put, some new writers do not find that helpful, yet it is good advice. We will look more closely at that later in this article.
Let us look first at the source of all ideas. Ideas are all around us wherever we look, yet we may not be able to see the wood for the trees. Brought down to basic level an idea for a story or novel must concern or illustrate the human condition in some way. This is true even if you are writing science fiction. Fictional aliens may have a strange appearance but they should think and behave and have the same values as humans or they will have no interest for the reader or viewer. The human condition therefore is the source of all ideas that appeal to readers. That gives a wide scope for looking for something to write about.
Most stories, novels, films and plays are about human relationships and connections. No matter what the genre, the fictional characters have to suffer and struggle against life and circumstances. This is true even in writing comedy. Readers are interested in how characters cope with difficult situations and their own needs and emotions.
Emotions such as love, hate, greed, envy, sexual jealousy, and hunger for power or voracious ambition have endless fascination for the reader or viewer. The reader is curious how other people deal with situations such as personal danger, life-threatening disease, loneliness, loveless marriage, shortage of money etc. etc. The writer, alert for ideas, can mine this rich seam over and over again. Because, the truth is that no idea is new or original. It is a waste of time searching for originality. Every idea under the sun has been used myriad times before. What the writer must do is to look for new angles on old themes.
The success of the film ‘Avatar’ is a point in question. At first glance this is just another shoot-‘em-up, coupled with the old theme of the battle between good and evil. In most science fiction stories the human characters are the good-guys and the aliens are the evils menace. In ‘Avatar’ this theme has been stood on its head. The humans are the ruthless evil-doers and the aliens are the defenceless yet courageous good-guys. The viewer roots for them to overthrow the humans – and this is because the aliens appear more human than the humans themselves.
Write about what you know. A new writer may say... ’My life is so dull – there’s nothing in it to write about.’
But look around you. The writer must make use of all sources – gossip, news stories, your family, friends, and people you work among. Every one around you has his or her own story. The writer does not take these stories verbatim but uses them to construct similar fictitious situations and uses his/her imagination to expand and develop these basic beginnings and weave them into a plot
Will it fly? You are finally decided on your genre and have found a basic idea to run with. Don’t start writing yet. There is a long way to go before that. Some ideas are perfect for short stories but are totally inadequate for novels. An idea for a novel has to have the promise of meatiness, that is, stamina to be the backbone of a novel of say 100,000 thousand words. The writer needs to look carefully at this idea and see where it can be expanded, strengthened and developed to go the distance. There are other elements of writing the novel which can help him do this. The most important element is the development of the characters that will inhabit the novel.
In the next article in the series the choosing of characters and their development will be discussed.